YouTube’s Vanessa Pappas: “The distance that mainstream media manufactured between a celebrity and fan has all but eroded online”


While leading product at YouTube I fell in love with the Next New Networks team, one of the first startups to understand how to build content for YouTube and assist networks of creators. For a variety of blah blah big company reasons, I failed in my first attempt to acquire them. Thankfully, we tried again and the NNN team came over to YouTube in 2011. Vanessa Pappas immediately made an impact upon the way YouTube approached audience development. Five years later, here are five questions for this sharp Australian turned New Yorker.

Hunter Walk: So you joined YouTube in 2011 when Next New Networks was acquired. You were quite familiar with YouTube because you worked closely with many content creators and some of YouTube’s teams. Do you remember your first impressions when you came aboard – were there things which surprised you about YouTube, that weren’t apparent when you were on the outside?

Vanessa Pappas: Yes! There were a couple things that really stood out to me when I joined. First the idea that anyone could bring an idea to the table, that even though YouTube was a big company, sitting inside an even bigger company, that there was a true openness and appetite for experimentation. Coming from a startup environment the mentalities were similar, YouTube didn’t presume to have all the answers and that was really reassuring. We were given the opportunity to try things. Whether it was when I lead the launch of our Creator Playbook for YouTube best practices worldwide or when we opened our first YouTube Space, there was a test and iterate mode that we could operate within.

Second was just the sheer scale of the platform. At Next New, we worked with a little more than a hundred creators but that was nowhere near the millions of creators who are on YouTube and its billion users, not to mention the data that we instantly had access to. I think you hear the numbers when you’re on the outside but it doesn’t really resonate in the same way until you are actually doing something that has the potential to impact millions, globally. It’s truly motivating, but also a little humbling in the responsibility that comes with it.

HW: YouTube, for me, was always product that required both algorithms AND anthropology to thrive. That is, the team couldn’t be only data driven but had to understand communities, creativity and people. As Global Head of Creative Insights at YouTube are there times that the data says one thing but your instincts suggest something else? And what do you trust?

VP: YouTube is such a unique platform in that regard. I think YouTube communities are unparalleled, in terms of both their passion and engagement and the breadth of our communities and the content. In my role, it’s my job to understand what works to build an audience on YouTube from a creative and data-driven perspective. And while it’s certainly easy to look at the numbers and make assumptions about what resonates with users, you really do need to pair that with your instincts and importantly, trust the creators’ instincts. More often it requires you to look beneath the surface. Typically what I find is the data will tell you a macro trend that you’re witnessing (e.g. whether a feature or a content format type is successful) but as you look deeper you recognize that it plays out differently for subsets of the viewer base and by market. And knowing to dig further comes from trusting your gut.

That said, I also feel you need to question your own assumptions and biases. In a landscape where things change so rapidly some things that were true yesterday may not be true today. The platform is constantly evolving and with that, new behaviors arise. For example we’ve been AB testing a feature that’s been out for a while, and a year ago it gave one set of results and now we’re seeing that the opposite can be true in terms of how viewers respond. So I really believe it’s a matter of maintaining an inquisitiveness and flexing both left and right sides of the brain.

HW: Historically there’s been a language and credibility gap separating Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Is this gap widening, narrowing or who cares because the future will look totally different?

VP: It is rapidly narrowing. It wasn’t too long ago that Variety thought we we’re all doomed if PewDiePie was an example of talent, to now recognizing YouTubers are more popular than mainstream celebrities. So, while it’s felt a long time coming for those who’ve been on the digital side I think we’re starting to see Hollywood come around as the audience shift has been so undeniable and there are no signs of it stopping. The next few years the landscape is going to be radically different again with the next technological advances with The Internet of Things, VR and 360 gaining their foothold.

HW: How has YouTube’s Creator population changed over the last few years? Do you see any common threads running through the generations?

VP: I think the biggest changes are the massive growth in terms of numbers in our creator community. And with that, the breadth and depth of content – there’s literally an audience for everything. Outside of more common communities that exist on YouTube around music, film, gaming, hobbies, tutorials, animation, makeup and so on we’ve found niche communities around everything from haul videos, to drone racing, to miniature things, to parkour. It wasn’t too long ago that Minecraft videos and toy unboxing were anything but mainstream.

Next I’d say is the maturity of our creators. This isn’t just vloggers in their bedroom. Our creators are running full-fledged production companies and businesses where they’re franchising into books, TV shows, movies and products. For example, Michelle Phan, Tyler Oakley, Grace Helbig, Bethany Mota, and Rooster Teeth. And what’s great to see is the audience has really come along for the ride.

In terms of commonalities that we see today with past generations, and this may sound trite, but the authenticity of the content is still one of the main distinguishing factors on why YouTube creators resonate so deeply with audiences. That, and the fact that consistency of programming works. At the end of the day, humans are habitual creatures so certainly what works on TV, in terms of reliable programming, is also true of online. I think one the biggest changes has been this shift to regular scheduled programming for online creators. I remember at Next New, folks thought we were crazy to program online video, which at the time was dominated by thinking about viral hits and one-offs, but it really remains as one of the tenets to building loyal audiences.

HW: Over the last five years, many celebrities have created their own YouTube channels or programming strategies. What’s the most common mistake they make? Anyone in particular surprise you with their ability to ‘go native’ to the platform?

VP: Biggest mistakes are thinking that if you post your content online your audiences will simply follow you. They’re looking to connect with the content, so if you’re not building your formats in ways that engage your community then you’re going to be ignored. There’s a reason why Late Night Talk Shows made the transition to YouTube online so well. Jamie Oliver and Karlie Kloss are also taking heed in what our endemic YouTube creators are doing – from collaborating with them to embracing native online formats. Ultimately we have witnessed over the last five years that the distance that mainstream media manufactured between a celebrity and fan has all but eroded online, community and the fostering of a direct connection is now everything.